David Krueger, M.D.
We all want to help a client or colleague see things in an objective and informed way. To listen together to their unfolding story and collaboratively examine the 90-95% of their operating system that is unconscious and often contains biases, blind spots, and assumptions that don’t work.
However, the brain opposes new information in its effort to preserve the default mode. Additionally, the brain’s error detection mechanism activates when we receive information contrary to what we expect. We then seek data to validate what we already believe (confirmation bias), stick with what we know (the endowment effect), and repeat the same behavior (status quo bias). This mode of default operation saves energy and sustains the familiar, but can result in stuckness and limit new possibilities.
If we attempt to introduce change by more information, reminding the benefits of seeing or doing things in a particular way (naturally ours), or even pushing, opposition results. When this approach utilizing physics doesn’t work, we may simply nudge a bit harder, often resulting in increased resistance. And the more intelligent someone is, the more reasons they will find to refute the new information or suggestions (the Boomerang Effect).
But if we switch from physics to chemistry, change can happen faster by adding a catalyst. A catalyst simply facilitates alternatives and removes barriers.
The antithesis of information and suggestions is to ask a question. Asking a question shifts the listener’s perspective to one of participant, to look for answers rather than to oppose or accept. Asking a question engages the client in a collaborative framework. Initially consider summarizing their perspective in a few words, or resonating empathically with their experience if emotion leads the way. This doesn’t mean that you agree, but that you hear their point of view. Feeling understood positions for a more meaningful conversation. The beginning of this collaborative framework activates oxytocin, the neurochemical system of bonding and connection to frame the remainder of the conversation. And we commit to that which we co-create.
How do you ask the best questions?
Open-ended questions engage a mindset of inquiry and collaboration. We focus on and grow in the direction of what we are asked about. We know from the research of Appreciative Inquiry that a focus on what works enhances what works. A focus on challenge and possibility elicits a positive, exploratory mindset, initiating new neural pathways and connections. A focus on problems retraces the same pathways already existing in the brain and further etches problem pathways, even when pursuing solutions.
Hemingway said it best, “Write the simplest sentence possible.” William Zinsser in The Art of Writing posed the four principles of good writing, which also happen to be the same four principles of good speaking: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. And we know from neuroscience that we attend to and retain up to 10-12 words at a time, so the best questions are brief.
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